I never thought much about square footage until I bought a small house. Because I own such a little home, where every single inch counts, I am more mindful of living space than ever.
Thanks to the tiny house movement, I don’t have to look far for space-saving ideas. Everywhere it seems there are television shows, blogs, and books celebrating small spaces and highlighting all the perks of tiny house living: financial freedom, a simpler lifestyle, and smaller environmental footprint.
If you’ve ever watched the Tiny House Nation television series or read the Tiny House Talk blog, you’ll come across houses that are less than 500 square feet. Some are on wheels. Others are off-the-grid and eco-friendly. Many were built for a few thousand dollars.
To most people, my house in Burlington is shockingly small. We live in a tiny house – well, tiny-ish. Our house is not on wheels, and we are far from mortgage-free. Still, it’s tiny by most people’s standards. My husband Dave and I live in a four-room, 803-square-foot house with our three-year-old daughter, Phoebe, and our two cats.
Our house is a lovely, 100-year-old restored bungalow with nine-foot ceilings, cherry kitchen cabinets, and hardwood floors. We have an open living room and kitchen, two bedrooms, and one bathroom. There’s also a dry basement, front porch, back deck, one-car garage and small yard. From a practical standpoint, it’s big enough. But for most people I know (except for those die-hard tiny house dwellers – you know who you are), our house is extremely small.
A case for small house living
When it comes to house size, I’m clearly in the minority. In the United States, the average size of homes built in 2013 was 2,600 square feet, up from 1,725 square feet in 1983. While the size of the American family hasn’t grown in 30 years, houses in this country continue to get bigger. Still, there’s something to be said for living small.
A recent article in The Globe and Mail, “Squeezed, and Loving It: 5 Kids, 2 Adults in a 1,000-Square-Foot Condo,” mentions a study released by The Center on Everyday Lives of Families at the University of California.
The study found that regardless of the size of house, the families spent nearly all their time in a space of around 400 square feet, mostly in the kitchen, family room and dining room. The rest of the house was almost never used. The average backyard use by the children was only 40 minutes a week. Parents used the outdoor space 15 minutes a week.
Ultimately, researchers found that while we crave abundant space, we rarely use it.
A big, empty house
When Dave and I first started looking for a house in Burlington two years ago, we wanted to live in Burlington’s South End so we could be within walking distance to downtown. Of course, we could get more for our money living outside of the city, but we knew in our hearts that suburban living – even country living – doesn’t work for us. Neither does living in a big house with lots of space we don’t need. That was a mistake that we had made when we first moved to Vermont.
Nine years ago, we sold our 525-square-foot condo in Boston and bought a three bedroom, 1,800-square-foot farmhouse on an acre-and-a-half of land in Underhill.
The house in Underhill was old and charming – and bigger than we needed. For the three years that we lived there, we had rooms that sat nearly empty and unused – an office with crooked wood floors was a dumping ground for old tax returns, a den with cheap gray carpeting was our cat litter box room, and a small bedroom with peeling, green wallpaper was where we kept the ironing board.
Back then we lived paycheck to paycheck, and we struggled to fill the house with furniture or do any renovating. We didn’t know what to do with those unused rooms, so we basically ignored them altogether (except when the cat box needed to be changed).
For a while, we envisioned growing our family in Underhill to fill those hollow spaces. But children did not come easily for us. When we were expecting our first child in 2009, our daughter was delivered stillborn in my fifth month of pregnancy. The bedroom with green wallpaper and ironing board that we planned on making into her nursery sat empty in the months after her death up until the day we sold the house.
Underhill taught us a few lessons. We realized we didn’t want a big house or to live in a remote location. When we eventually became parents, we wanted to be a one-car family and live in a walkable community. For us, that meant settling in Burlington, where we’ve lived for the past five years (renting for three, owning for two).
While house hunting in Burlington with Phoebe in tow, I was also revaluating my professional career and longed for more flexibility. I was working full time when Phoebe was an infant and toddler and desperately wanted to have more time with my only child. After months of searching for a home, I stumbled upon a for-sale-by-owner listing on Picket Fence Preview.
The house was an olive green bungalow built in 1913 in Burlington’s Five Sisters neighborhood. Even though the house was much smaller than we initially wanted, it was in a desirable neighborhood and considerably less expensive than our other options. Rather than be house poor, we opted to buy our little house in May 2013. Three months later, I left my job and started working part time.
Embracing our tiny house
Since buying our home, I’ve learned that living in a small house forces you to get creative. We’ve installed drawers in my daughter’s closet so she doesn’t need a dresser in her room. We have bins in every room to store toys, books, Legos, and art supplies. We mounted our flat screen television on our living room wall, and got rid of our oversized coffee table.
We have a pull-out couch for guests, and durable patio furniture that spends six months of the year on our back deck to help us spread out. When my sister and her family visited us for Christmas, they stayed at our neighbors, who were away for the week and graciously offered up their home.
I’m the first to admit that living in an 803-square-foot house with my husband and daughter isn’t always easy. There are certainly days when I crave more space. A few items on the floor and kitchen counter can make the house feel like a cluttered mess. When I need alone time, there are not many places to escape for privacy. There are also the occasional jabs from friends or relatives who sometimes make our lifestyle choice feel mocked or misunderstood. But all in all, the good far outweighs the bad.
Whenever I wonder whether we made the right choice, I look around my little home and immediately know the answer. The emptiness is gone, and more than anything, our lives feel happy and full.